Monday, March 23, 2015

Girls Season Four

With each passing season, the phenomenon that was once Girls continues to wane. The show wrapped its fourth season last night with an ending akin to that of The Wizard of Oz. You see, much like Dorothy finding out she had the power to go home all the time, the "girls" merely needed to be exposed to pure, distilled "adulthood" to grow up - child birth made Jessa realize she wants to be a therapist and Hannah to move past Adam; Shoshana got a Yoda-like lecture from Hermie  and decided to embark on a career in Japan and Marnie just needed a pep talk from newly minted Neighborhood Board Chairman Ray Ploshansky to nail a coffee house tryout.  

The season finale nicely exposed much of what was wrong with the season as a whole. Too much plot crammed into too little time. Nowhere was this more true than with Lena Dunham's alter ego and titular main character Hannah Horvath. After pulling a particularly selfish stunt by letting Adam know that she had been admitted to the Iowa Writer's Workshop on the night of his Broadway premiere, the couple has an uneasy denouement (and unspoken "we're on a break" agreement) when Hannah makes her way to the prairie in the season's second episode. Instead of keeping Hannah in Iowa for the season to explore how couples handle long-distance relationships or let her stretch her literary wings (after all, she was supposed to be a voice of her generation) before a season ending "should I stay or should I go" conundrum, Hannah flames out spectacularly. Her fellow graduate students have no patience for her childish behavior and know-it-all attitude much less her actual writing, which they quickly peg as superficial and self-centered. 

That she folds her tent so quickly was particularly curious considering how much time had been spent during the prior three seasons getting us invested in the idea that Hannah was determined to be a writer - from burning bridges at her advertorial job at GQ to doing coke for a freelance website gig - suddenly, being bullied by snobby graduate students snuffed out her dream? When she gets back to find Adam has shacked up with a new woman (an excellent Gillian Jacobs as a pretentious artist named Mimi-Rose) it feels like, as Adam would say, another step in a series of random steps. 

Hannah spirals further when she meets Fran, a single teacher at the school she magically gets a substitute teaching job at and takes him to one of Mimi-Rose's art exhibits on their first date. She also befriends one of her teen students, Cleo, who she goes to get matching piercings with (bailing when the younger girl screams in horror as a needle is shoved through the underside of her tongue) and then berates when Cleo doesn't return Hannah's ten texts and three calls (!) after Tad comes out of the closet. Perhaps it is because Hannah talked Cleo into getting the underside of her tongue pierced that the teen snubs her, but the total lack of appropriateness and idea that you would rely on an adolescent for emotional support (and then have a tantrum when she does not) made me roll my eyes so hard I think I gave myself a concussion. 

Marnie is no better. Her relationship with pretty boy hipster Desi is volatile, beginning with her as the "other woman" whom Desi basically sells on the idea of his not being into traditional relationships, but somehow ends with a marriage proposal after he blows their $2,000 advance on some guitar equipment. Huh? Of course, she ignores the advice of the one person who actually does act like an adult - Ray - when he tells her that Desi is selfish and unworthy of her and it is ultimately left to Ray to dress down Desi so thoroughly (it really is one of the show's great scenes) that he no shows the coffee house gig a record executive  scheduled for him and Marnie.

Shoshana spends most of the season on a fruitless search for a job (perhaps a karmic comeuppance for being so incredibly rude to the one interviewer who did offer her gainful employment) before oddly shifting into a role as Ray's pseudo-campaign manager when the Grumpy's manager is left wanting at a neighborhood board meeting where his complaint about traffic on his street does not even make it onto the agenda. She also manages to insult another interviewer, Scott, but who ends up asking her out and offering her material comfort which she ultimately rejects in favor of a job in Tokyo offered to her during the season finale.  

Jessa and Adam gravitate toward each other in Hannah's absence and bond over AA, but Jessa is also typically Jessa - peeing on the street and then mouthing off to the cops who issue her a ticket, getting her and Adam arrested; setting up Adam with Mimi-Rose so she can get a crack at Ace (an also excellent Zachary Quinto), Mimi-Rose's ex, before the whole caper blows up spectacularly in Mimi-Rose's impossibly hip home when Ace and Jessa pop in unannounced and Jessa realizes she and Adam are simply pawns in the most narcissistic game of human chess ever played - she susses out that Mimi-Rose and Ace are heavyweight champions of self-absorption while she and Adam are rank amateurs.

But like a clever kid who skips showing her work and gets to the answer at the bottom of a math question, the show barely lingers on what would otherwise be major milestones in its characters development to get to some ending that seems satisfactory. Tad's coming out is played for some laughs but also humiliates him - he is just as emasculated by Lorraine post-coming out as he was pre, so did it really make a difference? Marnie goes from other woman to betrothed, steals Ray's thunder at his election night victory party, but then is able to perform flawlessly in her fiancĂ©'s absence when he bails on the most important performance of their nascent career. Even the coda to the finale, flashing forward six months (never mind the fact that the season presumably ends in November after Election Day, meaning NYC must have experienced a very rare May snowfall!) makes little sense. Fran had rightly pegged Hannah as self-involved and dramatic, yet somehow, by the magic touch of his hand on her back after she (dramatically) storms out of her class and her witnessing a child's birth, we are to assume that they are now a happy, stable couple tip toeing through the snowflakes. Ok. It is TV, so sure, why not.   

But the longer the narrative arc of the show becomes, the more its whole strains credulity. Or maybe it is that life just moves oh so fast when you are in the rarefied hipster air of Brooklyn, but having brushed over so many of the small things that happen in life to get to bigger themes and sources of discovery, the show misses a basic point: life rarely affords a simple montage or defining moment that moves you in a different direction, it comes from slow and steady work and effort to change and break bad habits and inculcate new and better ones. What was too often missing from this season's work was the showing of that work. If anything, much of the behavior and decision making regresses before the deus ex machina ending that propelled the characters forward. Convenient, but not very satisfying. 

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Mad Men Death Pool

Death is as much a part of Mad Men as alcohol and infidelity. From Adam Whitman's suicide [1] to Bert Cooper's expiration as men landed on the moon [2], the show has not been bashful about sending characters to the great beyond. [3] As we round the corner and head for home with the final seven episodes beginning to air in three short weeks, let's take a minute and look at the Mad Men "Death Pool."

The Long-Shots

The Draper Children - Bobby and Gene (1000-1); Sally Draper (500-1): Sure, Bobby Draper has been played by multiple child actors and appears to eat up screen time for no other reason than to annoy us, but neither he nor younger brother Gene seem like obvious candidates for an untimely demise. Sally could get killed hitchhiking to Woodstock or Glen Bishop could turn out to be a murderous sociopath (though one would think Betty would be the target of his animus, not Sally), but short of that, I think she will live to experience (and surely roll her eyes at) the 1970s and the years of therapy she has ahead of her.

Harry Crane (250-1): Like cockroaches that will survive a nuclear holocaust, nothing seems to stop Harry Crane. Mergers and acquisitions, the birth of his children, seduction by a hare krishna harlot,  bingeing on hamburgers, and unfortunate sideburns, it all just rolls of Harry's back. 

Ken Cosgrove (250-1): Too anodyne to make waves for so long, when Ken briefly dipped his toe into the deeper waters of upper management, he ended up on the business end of some random GM executive's shotgun pellets. [4] Expect Ken to lay low, or better yet, hang up his spurs and become a full-time writer of weird science-fiction.

Ted Chaough (200-1): Way too nice to die young. 

Jim Cutler (175-1): Roger Sterling without the charm but also without the two prior heart attacks. 

Betty Draper Francis (150-1): Sure, her weight has yo-yo'd a bit of late and she smokes a lot, but life as a housewife has shielded Betty from some of the other obvious indicators of long-term health risk. She could go on another wild goose chase into a shady part of New York City [5] and end up losing more than the proprietary rights to her goulash recipe, but my guess is she is more likely to bury her second husband (more on that later).

Joan Holloway (150-1): Already dodged the greatest risk to an early death - being underneath lecherous Jaguar car dealer Herb Rennet. 

Cannot Be Ruled Out

Freddy Rumsen (125-1): Freddy is just the kind of mid-tier supporting player whose death could be used as an episode jolt.

Megan Draper (100-1): As much as people wanted to buy into the Megan-will-die-because-she-wore-a-Sharon-Tate-t-shirt, I don't see it happening. If she stays in La La Land, her more likely future is on the arm of some rich executive, not the victim of a ritual murder. 

Peggy Olson (80-1): Being a landlord and resident in one of New York's sketchier neighborhoods has not been without danger for Peggy, but it will likely be another few decades before her drinking, smoking, and high stress job catch up with her. 

The Contenders

Henry Francis (30-1): Killing off Henry would be a convenient way to put Betty and Don back together in middle-age, when, in theory, Don's wandering eye and marginal emotional growth might afford the couple a second chance. 

Don Draper (20-1): I have never subscribed to the theory that the show's opening credits are a foreshadowing of Don's suicide. That said, he has not been above allusions to death [6] and carries the guilt of two dead bodies on his conscience [7], but I am sticking to my belief that the credits speak to Don's uncanny ability to pull himself out of the fire in the moment before he is going to splatter all over the sidewalk and appear unperturbed, not a hair out of place, cigarette in hand, and ready for the next challenge. The only reason I have him ranked this high is because he is the main character in the show; however, those who know that Matt Weiner is a devotee of David Chase, should expect an ambiguous, Tony-Soprano-in-the-diner ending, not a Don-clutching-his-chest-and-fading-to-black ending. 

Pete Campbell (10-1): It seemed like Pete was <this close> to doing something untoward to himself while his marriage circled the drain and his paramour Beth Dawes had any memory of him zapped from her brain, [8] but his temporary relocation to California did nothing to salve the emotional wounds Pete suffers from. He is every bit as petulant, whiny, and offensive as ever and at some point, either by his own hand or someone else's, things are not going to end well. 

Roger Sterling: (3-1): Don's Sancho Panza, who almost did not make it through 1960 [9], has rebounded nicely through the sixties, but at some point all that Stoli, nicotine, and unhealthy diet have to catch up to him, right? 

What do you think?

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1. Indian Summer, Season 1, Episode 11. 
2. Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7.
3. Other notable deaths include Gene Hofstadt (The Arrangements, Season 3, Episode 4), Anna Draper (The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7), Ida "The Astronaut" Blankenship (The Beautiful Girls, Season 4, Episode 9), Lane Pryce (Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12), Mother Sterling (The Doorway Part I, Season 6, Episode 1), and Frank Gleason (The Crash, Season 6, Episode 8). 
4. The Quality of Mercy, Season 6, Episode 12. 
5. The Doorway Part II, Season 6, Episode 2. 
6. See, e.g., commenting on a Saturday night in the suburbs as making him want to "blow his brains out," (Signal 30, Season 5, Episode 5), doodling nooses on a note pad, (To Have and To Hold, Season 6, Episode 4), and using imagery others considered suicidal for a Royal Hawaiian marketing pitch (The Doorway Part II, Season 6, Episode 2). 
7. Don felt responsible for Adam Whitman's death because Don pushed him away. Don felt responsible for Lane Pryce's death because he fired Lane after discovering the Brit had embezzled money from the firm and forged Don's signature on the check that he wrote to steal from the firm.
8. The Phantom, Season 5, Episode 13. 

9. During Season 1, Roger has two heart attacks in close proximity to one another. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review - Citizens of the Green Room

In the wake of This Town, his dishy, behind-the-curtain expose of the venality of "official" Washington, Mark Leibovich has published a follow-up of sorts. Citizens of the Green Room is sub-titled "profiles in courage and self-delusion" but the quippy title does little to mask the book's utter lack of charm or cohesion.

Citizens is a collection of Mr. Leibovich's writing over the years and offers readers the same sort of "access" to politicians, pundits, and hangers-on that his prior work did. There are vignettes about candidates for President waiting in line to use the men's room (then-candidate John Kerry comes up with a clever work around - using the women's room while a staffer stands a post outside), road trips in campaign vehicles (John McCain gets Phoenix Coyotes hockey updates while bantering with the author, Rick Santorum fires down food-on-the-go) and Chris Matthews holding court during the wee hours after a Presidential debate (his decorum is as you'd expect from a blowhard who keeps a running tally of the number of honorary degrees bestowed upon him).

But the book's failure is in its editing. Instead of sorting his prior work temporally or by subject matter, the reader is left hopscotching across the last ten or so years of politics, encountering names long forgotten (Scott McClellan or Jim Traficant anyone?) juxtaposed stories of the moment that are now so much water under the bridge (remember when Glenn Beck was a thing? or Teddy Kennedy Jr. was considered a serious candidate for his father's Senate seat?)

The narrative does not line up with the book's cover either, which shows a faceless man with his hand over his heart, money where a pocket square should be, an American flag lapel pin and a clip mic - which would suggest some nexus of money and access that This Town plumbed in depth but Citizens only lightly grazes. And while some of Leibovich's earlier work may take on importance (his mid 2000s profile of Jeb Bush includes references to insensitive comments Bush made about women and African-Americans during his 1994 race for Governor), much of it is political flotsam that is no longer relevant (does anyone really care what kind of memory device former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card relied on as opposed to his memorable observation that the "marketing" of the Iraq War would commence after Labor Day 2002 because summer "marketing" campaigns are ineffective). 

There is no question Leibovich is a talented writer whose punchy and descriptive prose paints a nice picture; however, little of what is included in Citizens has aged well or is worth revisiting. 

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